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Riding high: Riders in the Sky swoop into Santa Rosa.

Fair Play

Cowboy chaos from Riders in the Sky

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CHAOS IS a cowboy's best friend. At least it is if the cowboy is Ranger Doug, the guitar-strumming frontman for the Riders in the Sky, arguably America's strangest assemblage of singing cowboys.

"Chaos," proposes Ranger Doug, "is a lot more interesting--and theatrical--than are calmness and order. So I like a little chaos now and then."

That explains a few things. Riders in the Sky have a well-earned reputation for wild live shows in which the unexpected can and does happen. These cowboys are chaos junkies.

Currently enjoying a surge in popularity because of their kitschy contributions to the Toy Story 2 soundtrack, the Nashville-based Riders are also celebrating their first Grammy, picked up for the spiffy spinoff CD Woody's Roundup Featuring Riders in the Sky.

Together for 25 years, the team of Ranger Doug, Woody Paul, Too Slim--with the recent addition of Joey the Cow-Polka King--have won themselves a devoted audience. Fans are attracted to the group's melodious western harmonies and the goofball cowboy-shtick they've built around original tunes like How the Yodel Was Born and such classics as Tumbling Tumbleweeds, Rawhide--and, of course, Ghost Riders in the Sky.

Riders in the Sky routinely perform in classy, predictable places like theaters and concert halls. But Ranger Doug admits that the band members' need for unpredictability is what steers them toward doing so many outdoor shows at big county fairs.

"We like fairs," Ranger Doug says, talking on the phone from Ojai, where they've just performed, "mainly because we like the atmosphere.

"Sure, you don't have the kind of devoted attention you get in a theater show, where people have paid a hard ticket to see you, and they're hanging on to your every word," he continues. "But you gain all that wonderful activity, things going on all around you."

As an example, he mentions a recent show at a fair in Placerville, where the Riders found themselves performing right next to a bungee-jumping attraction. "Regular as clockwork," Ranger Doug recalls, "about the middle of every song, there was some new person up there going, 'Oh, ah, oooh, ah . . . . AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!' as they'd leap off and plummet through the air. . . . We see stuff like that as an opportunity. So we worked it into the act."

Riders will be bringing a little of that patented cowboy chaos to the North Bay on Aug. 2, when the group performs at the Sonoma County Fair for the second time. "For a fair show, with a family audience, naturally we're going to tone down the double-entendres a little," Ranger Doug says. "But it's not like the show's laden with them anyway."

Oh no? What about the time that Woody's onstage science experiment--he electrified a dill pickle using two forks duct-taped to an extension cord--resulted in an escalating barrage of fried-pickle jokes? "Gettin' your pickle fried on a Saturday night," observed Too Slim. "Now that's the Cowboy Way!"

The episode culminated in the spontaneous onstage appearance of a woman who sagaciously sucked a large dill pickle while Ranger Doug heroically attempted to finish the gentle love song he'd just begun.

"Well, yeah, there was that time," Ranger Doug allows with a lengthy chuckle. "Sometimes we even surprise ourselves."

There may be more surprises in store for the Riders. When animator Chuck Jones and Looneytoons.com launch the new Web-only cartoon series called Thomas T. Timberwolf, the group will be heard singing the cartoon's bouncy theme song. Are the Riders poised to become the new Theme Song Kings?

"That's not such a bad thing, is it?" Ranger Doug replies happily. "It wouldn't break my heart." At the very least, it might pack the fair audiences with chaos-loving cartoon fans.

"And that," says Ranger Doug, "can only be good for the show."


Riders in the Sky perform Thursday, Aug. 2, at 6 and 8 p.m. at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. Free with fair admission; reserved seats are $7. 707/545-4200.

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From the July 26-August 1, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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